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Four Surprising Ways to Rev Up Your Dissertation with Summer Fun | Issue 241

Summary: Stop depriving yourself of summer fun. Learn to leverage vacations to do your best work and create a balanced life now.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.

Summer is nearly half over. Do you find yourself torn between the dissertation imperative and your vacation impulses?

Forget the dilemma. The truth is that you need them both. It is not just okay but essential to take time away from academic pursuits to enjoy family, friends, and fun. It will enhance your overall focus and productivity. 

Some doctoral students assume that the only way to finish is to keep the nose to the grindstone. But driving yourself relentlessly turns out to be a poor long-term strategy for your success and well-being, as twenty years of positive psychology research has shown. 


"More men are killed by overwork than the importance of the world justifies." 
~ Rudyard Kipling


Positive emotions fuel creativity and productivity

Positive emotions—including play—function as our "tiny engines of flourishing," asserts UNC's renowned researcher Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. When you have a high ratio of positive to negative experiences, you reap several important benefits: enhanced energy and creativity, better relationships, a deeper sense of gratitude and meaning, and even better sleep. In short, positivity will get you in shape for whipping out those pages. 

To stoke your positivity, we offer four science-based tips to maximize your recharge. With a bit of strategic planning, summer pleasures won't derail you. Instead they will propel you toward your academic goals and a desirable future. 


"Happiness is not just a mood—it's a work ethic." 
~ Shawn Achor, Ph.D. 


1. Expect a "realistic" not "best case" summer.

Chances are you don't really have "the rest of the summer" to devote strictly to writing. A realistic plan must include not only your dissertation priorities and other work, but also your summertime run. Yes, that means you need to dedicate time to vacations, visitors, outings, festivals, etc. 

To make your best plan, begin by crossing off your calendar the days you know no writing will happen. Don't kid yourself that you will leave the wedding reception early or that you will take your laptop to the family reunion or Paris. Do you also need to block off job or other commitments? Now you must hold any remaining days for your dissertation. But that's not the end of it. 

Beware the "planning fallacy." Nearly everyone assumes best-case scenarios while preparing schedules and budgets. As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., explained, humans tend to imagine an unrealistic future (in which no one gets sick, nothing breaks down or gets lost, no crises occur) rather than relying on actual experiences in an imperfect world. The wise alternative is to plan realistic (or even worst-case) scenarios by doubling or tripling the time you originally estimated for your writing goals. 

Honesty now will save you grief later. Have you really blocked off enough dissertation time for your stated goals? Or do you need to graciously back out of some events? What should you delete, delegate, defer, or minimize to stay true to yourself and finish your doctorate? Rework your calendar. 


"You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say 'no' to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger 'yes' burning inside." 
~ Stephen Covey, Ph.D.


2. Create your weekly work and play agenda. 

Waiting for your muse in the morning to prompt you to start writing? Give it up. Evidence proves you are more than twice as likely to get going if you have a set start time. Return to your calendar and start blocking out specific time-based modules for your dissertation work. 

You will also save precious willpower energy by avoiding daily decisions about when to work. So calendarize your start times and honor them. Also schedule the down times—and honor them too. Otherwise Labor Day will find you feeling guilty about your lack of dissertation progress or regretful for missing the joys of warm weather. 

To optimize your schedule, use your prime brain time—often the morning hours—for your biggest dissertation challenges. Schedule other activities, including chores and play for "brain-dead" hours. As you plan each week, reflect on what worked well and tweak accordingly. You are the master of your time. As you take control, notice how your inner critic and inner child both pester you less. 

Mantras can work magic. If you balk at your work starting time, try repeating this: "It just takes twenty seconds of courage." That's all you need get yourself to sit at your desk, open your laptop, and start typing. Still balky? Remember how you have forced yourself to jump in a pool or wade into ocean waves despite the numbing cold water? And how you were happily splashing around in a couple minutes? Yes, you are tough enough to withstand a couple minutes of discomfort for what matters—and that includes your dream of attaining that doctorate. Keep splashing around on the keyboard until you've warmed up. Avoiding discomfort gets you nowhere.

"All progress takes place outside the comfort zone." 
~ Michael John Bobak


3. Stay present: Play during play time; work during work time.

Allow yourself to stay fully present when playing and socializing allows you to extract the maximum benefit from your recharge time. Let go of guilt feelings knowing you'll return in better shape. 

Similarly, during dissertation time, remind your antsy inner child that recess is coming and suggest she take a nap or watch videos. Then you will be free to re-focus on your work for greater progress. 

In the end, life is all about harmonizing and integrating your priorities. This stage in your life can be an ideal time for experimenting with shifting gears more gracefully, effectively. Consider this a necessary life skill that gets better with practice—and think "yin-yang," not tug-o-war. You will thank yourself in years to come as you create a full life without regret about neglecting either work or play. 

"Every man who possibly can should force himself to a holiday of a full month in a year,

whether he feels like taking it or not." 

~ William James


4. Accentuate the plusses, minimize the minuses.

Fretting and ruminating turn out to be especially harmful, leading into downward spirals of negativity. 


We become what we think, research shows. Emotions, both negative and positive tend to be quite fleeting—unless we intentionally prolong them. Learn to pivot from negativity quickly by distracting yourself with whatever works for you—a brisk walk, a song, a brief meditation, etc. Consider choosing a personal mantra that puts things in perspective, e.g., "This too shall pass," or "Let go or be dragged." 

Whereas ruminating prolongs negative experiences, savoring extends and deepens positive moments. Practicing savoring rewires your brain for lasting calm and resilience. Neuropsychology expert Rick Hanson, Ph.D., explains how to do it effectively: 

For survival purposes, the brain is good at learning from the bad, but bad at learning from the good. help it by enriching an experience through making it last 10 to 20 seconds or longer, fill your body and mind, and become more intense. Also absorb it by intending and sensing that it is sinking into you as you sink into it. Do this half a dozen times a day, maybe half a minute at a time. It's less than five minutes a day. 

Have you noticed how anticipating a movie with friends or glancing at vacation souvenirs can elicit a rush of happy, productive energy? You can triple your positive experiences and consequent energy by (a) training yourself to anticipate moments of pleasure, (b) immersing yourself in them, and (c) reminiscing about them afterward. "As you create new habits of thought, you literally rewire your brain," says Fredrickson. 


Now head for summer fun!

Take time guilt-free for your favorite places, pastimes, and people. Loll in a hammock with a novel. Bike over hill and dale with friends. Hit the tennis courts or beach. As you soak up the sensations and as you connect with others, remind yourself that these moments of pleasure are necessary for flourishing during any season. 

Then get back to your dissertation full speed ahead, with renewed commitment, contentment, and creativity. You'll reach the doctorate goal post with more joy and less angst, with your new work-life balancing habit stronger than before. 




Enjoy these top-notch books that will boost your fun and success.



Photo Credit: Above Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY


If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.

An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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